WASHINGTON – A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges can lengthen the prison sentences of people who use guns while committing other crimes, even if the defendant hasn't been convicted of any charge specifically involving the weapon.
With the 5-4 decision, justices avoided a ruling that could have threatened prison sentences of thousands of inmates and put in doubt sentencing laws in nearly every state.
At issue was federal prosecutors' practice of winning convictions for crimes such as drug dealing, then having a judge consider stiffer sentences because weapons were involved.
The Supreme Court said judges can decide whether defendants used guns in their crimes, using a lesser proof standard than juries.
The case, involving a former pawn shop operator, had called into question mandatory minimum sentences nationwide. Circumstances of a crime dictate the lowest sentence a judge can give.
Every state has some type of minimum sentencing system, and 24 states had urged the Supreme Court to rule as it did.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said "not all facts affecting the defendant's punishment are elements" which must be proven by a jury.
Justices upheld the seven-year prison sentence given William Joseph Harris, who pleaded guilty in 1999 to selling marijuana out of his pawn shop in Albemarle, N.C. He was wearing a pistol in a hip holster, his usual practice at the store.
Because of the weapon, a judge said Harris was also guilty of brandishing a gun while engaged in drug trafficking and gave him the Congress-mandated sentence of seven years in prison.
Justices ruled two years ago that allegations that bring harsher penalties must be put in an indictment and proven to a jury.
The Supreme Court handled three follow-up cases this year -- involving death penalty convictions, drug cases and crimes with guns.
In the drug case, justices limited appeals of people who received longer sentences when a judge, instead of a jury, determined that the amount of drugs involved was enough for a longer sentence. The court said in cases decided before 2000, defendants had to object at trial.
In the most closely watched of the three cases, the court ruled Monday that juries, not judges, must impose the death penalty.
In a dissent in the gun case, Justice Clarence Thomas said prosecutors were wrong not to include the weapon allegation in Harris' indictment.
Joining Thomas were Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The states that intervened in this case are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.
The cases are Harris v. United States, 00-10666 and United States v. Cotton, 01-687, and Ring v. Arizona, 01-488.